• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.



When a word carries different meanings.

September 11, 2019

In politics, misunderstandings often arise -- or, sometimes, are fostered -- by using the same word to mean different things. "Freedom," for instance, can refer to the absence of constraints, the presence of options or simple license. "Liberty" is similar. "Liberal" can mean all sorts of things, despite its seemingly clear root in "liberty." Depending on context, "liberal" can mean freedom-loving, libertarian, progressive, social-democratic, loose, generous, law-bound ("liberal democracy") or expansive, among other things.& That's a lot of meanings for one word to carry.

Definitions matter, because if people in a discussion are using the same word with different meanings, they may talk right past each other.

I saw this week that "entrepreneurial" is similar.

The context was a discussion at the College Forum. In response to a question about how the college could be more entrepreneurial, a professor objected to the premise. She suggested that the term is taken from the business world, and its use implies the acceptance of a business or for-profit frame of reference. She took the position that education is not fundamentally a business, and that accepting the framework of a for-profit model isn't likely to end well.

A colleague responded to the effect that we need to change with the times, and that increased student focus on employability is an inescapable fact, whether we like it or not. If we're going to be relevant to students and prospective students, we need to speak their language, and that language is increasingly the language of commerce.

As a few others tried to split the difference, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. It seemed that everyone was using a slightly different definition, and therefore talking past each other. It wasn't anybody's fault; nobody was trying to be deceptive, as far as I could tell, and everyone seemed to be speaking in good faith. But the discussion didn't really resolve because it was actually a few different discussions in parallel.

Having worked in for-profit higher ed, I absolutely understand my colleague's misgivings about importing a for-profit model to a community college. The market is amoral, and it wants what it wants, when it wants it. For instance, if all we wanted to do was to balance the budget, we could just walk away from higher-risk student populations and focus on the ones who are cheaper and easier to retain. That could ease budget pressures, but it would be profoundly immoral, and it would run counter to the college's mission. If that's what she understood the word to mean, I have to join in her objection.

But in context, I took the word not to mean "for-profit," but something closer to "experimental" or "proactive." It refers to a method, rather than a goal; the method is trying stuff, keeping what works, dropping what doesn't and trying more stuff. By that definition, market considerations may be relevant, or not. For example, if the goal of a given experiment is to reduce student achievement gaps, it may both succeed and cost the college money. The virtue of experimentation, in this sense, is that it opens up the possibility of real improvement over time. Over the last five to ten years, for instance, many colleges (and some states) have experimented with streamlining or eliminating remediation, or with allowing students to self-place in English and math. Overall, students and families have enjoyed the benefits of those experiments.

The difference is subtle, but it matters. If change necessarily means selling out, then stasis equates to virtue. Anyone familiar with Plato (or with entropy) will recognize quickly how that one ends. It's a tragic pose, doomed to failure. As the second colleague above noted, the world changes whether we give it permission or not. Failure to adapt is a guarantee of decline. But if change doesn't have to mean selling out -- if it can actually entail the possibility of improvement -- then we can escape the narrative of inevitable decline. In fact, we may be able to seize upon the new opportunities made available in a changing world to try new things. OER is an example of that.

In a culture that reveres tradition and considers many questions settled, any proposed change can easily come across as a threat. Ambiguous language doesn't do anything to prevent that. And I'll admit that despite beefing up security, we do have a few dyed-in-the-wool Platonists running around, decrying all change as decay. But most of us know better. When facing a sustained decline in enrollment and an ever-tightening budget, the last thing you want to do is nothing. That amounts to surrender. The college shouldn't go for-profit, but that's not the only option. It needs to be willing to experiment. If that's what being "entrepreneurial" means, I'm all for it.

Now, about liberalism …


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